“We’re a little low on gas. We should fuel up here before we get on our way,” my husband advised as we left Grandview.
The first gas station we stopped at appeared to be closed with plastic bags over the gas pump handles. We drove past another. At first glance it looked fine.
Then we looked a little closer and saw yellow caution tape and orange cones roping off the gas tanks.
“Hmmmm…..” we thought.
Another flashing sign popped up “No Gas.” We learned the storm had knocked out power to many gas stations in this area.
“Too bad,” we thought. “We’ll try for the next exit.”
We drove to the next exit and got off. The first thing we saw were long lines at all of the gas stations. Long lines even for stations where there was no power and no gas! People were just pulling up and parking in front of the pumps to wait.
This is where we started to get a bit nervous. A woman at the gas station indicated there was gas just down the road. My husband used the gas station finder application on his smartphone to locate more gas stations and drove several miles in either direction from the freeway exit only to find all the gas stations closed or out of power. In the meantime, I was madly searching Google and Twitter to find out what was going on.
I learned that what we thought was just a thunderstorm was actually a derecho, which confused me even more because our rudimentary homeschool Spanish taught me that derecho means “right” as in derecho (right) and izquierda (left). Wikipedia straightened me out and said that derecho also means straight and refers to a powerful storm moving in a straight line. My searching also came across this scary article indicating that 650,000 West Virginia businesses and residents had lost power in 53 of 55 of West Virginia’s counties due to the derecho! Helpfully, the article mentioned that there were lines for gas in the Charleston area, about 50-60 miles away from us.
With very little gas to sustain us, we had to make a decision. We could:
1) Choose to wait in line with the growing line of cars at the gas station near the freeway exit and hope for power (or, alternatively, try to book ourselves into a hotel for the night). We discussed the possibility that we might not be able to get a hotel due to the lack of power and/or lack of sufficient cash.
2) Take a risk and get on the freeway toward Charleston, hoping we could make it on what little gas we had left.
Interestingly, although my husband outwits me in almost every emergency, since this was essentially a shopping problem, where knowledge of people and shopping patterns were helpful, I had the upper hand.
“We need to get near Charleston,” I said. “Even if they are out of gas, they will likely get resupplied first as the largest city.”
My husband did not want to entertain the possibility of stranding our family on the highway. He reluctantly agreed to head toward Charleston but noted that I would be to blame if we got stranded. The empty light came on as we approached a toll booth.
“Ask the toll booth attendant if she knows where we can find gas,” I instructed him.
“Why on earth would the toll booth attendant know where gas is?” my husband testily replied.
“Please just ask her!” I pleaded.
So, as we paid our toll, he inquired.
“There’s gas in Marmet, about 30 miles away,” the toll booth attendant responded.
Feeling a bit smug, I breathed a sigh of relief as I consulted the owners manual for the car to determine the gas remaining once the empty light comes on and we calculated that we might just have enough gas to make it to Marmet.
“Are you really going to plan our course based on the word of a toll booth attendant?” my husband asked me.
However, since we had nothing else to go on, we headed to Marmet.
About halfway to Marmet, we came across the service plaza for the toll road. My husband wanted to check to see if the gas station for the service plaza was open. As we approached the service plaza, a lighted “NO GAS” sign met us and we saw a growing number of cars parked in the plaza.
It was a white knuckle ride to Marmet. I was constantly scanning Google and Twitter on my smart phone for any updates. All I found were complaints about people freaking out and hoarding gas. There was a slight air of desperation to it all. One person wrote that this must be what the end of the world is like.
As we drove, I tried to figure out how we could camp in the car for the evening if things got really desperate. We had enough food and water to last us several days but finding a safe place to sleep was going to be a challenge.
We had no idea exactly how much gas was left. My husband was monitoring the mileage and we calculated that we could make it to Marmet but no further. To save gas, we coasted down hills with the car in neutral and drove at a slow-ish 60 mph, trying to utilize the cars “ECO” gas-saving driving mode as best we could.
Finally, we arrived in Marmet.
We found long lines at the stations. I jumped out of the car and began questioning people at the pumps.
“Is there any gas left? We just need a few gallons to get out of the state.”
At first, someone told me there was no gas left and that all was coming out was drops. I went back to report this to my husband.
“No way,” he said. “Those people are filling up right over there.”
I went back to double-check and it turned out that there was gas. They were all out of 85 grade and just tapped out their 87 grade but there was some premium 92 gas remaining, available on a cash-only prepaid basis.
“We’ll take it!” I said.
We put in $20 and planned to fill up again closer to Charleston. I stuck around inside the gas station to chat for a minute and learned that this might be the very last gas station in West Virginia with any gas at all! We added another $20 in gas. I called the hotel in Kentucky we were scheduled to stay at to confirm they were not facing the same storm damage/power outage/gas shortage we had just escaped and the desk attendant seemed to think I was crazy and confirmed things were fine in Kentucky.
We were finally able to relax and my husband and I congratulated ourselves on our team effort getting our family out of this disaster situation. We drove out of Marmet grateful for our good fortune.
At this point, another small disaster arose as my second child announced she needed the bathroom urgently. My husband managed to find an open department store with a generator aptly called “Magic Mart.” To express our appreciation for their bathroom services, I bought this cute shirt that I now associate as my “survivor shirt.”
We passed people lined up for an Applebee’s food truck and I felt a twinge of guilt for having to pass only temporarily through all of this while friends were suffering in 100 degree temperatures without power.
Sadly, there was not much we could do. We had a trip to make and family counting on us and we pressed on to our hotel in Lexington, Kentucky.
From this experience, however, and from monitoring news updates about the situation in West Virginia for a few days after we left, I learned the following emergency situation tips.
Ruly Tips for Finding Gas in an Emergency Situation
1. The two best tools for finding gasoline in an emergency/low gas situation are a smart phone and cash. I have mentioned before why you should have cash in your emergency kit.
2. Search the Internet for news about where power outages or gas shortages are occurring. Hopefully you will at least come up with a general area that is unaffected.
3. If the Internet is unhelpful, ask everyone you run into where you might find gas but prioritize information from people who actually filled up with said gas. I imagine truck drivers are a great resource in this situation. In my case, a toll booth attendant was the key.
4. If you still have no reliable source of information, heading for the closest big city or (we later learned), a service station on a major highway or toll plaza is probably the best choice. A day after our gas emergency, we learned that the police put a priority on getting gas to cars parked at the toll plaza gas station because the line was backing onto the highway and disrupting the flow of traffic.
5. Conserve your fuel as you are driving around looking for gas. Drive below standard highway speed if necessary. Turn off your engine while waiting in line.
6. Know whether your car can handle different grades of gas rather than the standard 85, at least for a short time period or emergency situation. It’s no good filling your tank with gas that will kill the engine. If you don’t know the answer to this question, ask your mechanic.
7. If you find gas, Tweet it out to help someone else. I don’t believe there is any standard hashtag convention but using the two-letter state code plus “gas” would be a good idea. Ex. #wvgas
8. Aside from budgeting and car maintenance benefits, calculating your car’s typical gas mileage on a regular basis and knowing your car’s typical performance is a tremendous help in an emergency situation. Know how many gallons you have once the empty light comes on.
9. Most importantly, however, if a major disaster strikes your area and you are fortunately unaffected, don’t assume that everyone else is in the same situation. Do some research before you head out in the car and take appropriate precautions. The best advice might be to stay home and off the roads entirely!
As for us, we have put learning more about gas storage on our emergency preparedness list.
Have a low-gas/out-of-gas adventure? Please share in the comments.
Continue reading: Day 2 – Kentucky and Missouri